Films seen July

Baby Driver (2017 – Edgar Wright)

 

One of those films that gets inordinately over-praised because it is an ‘original idea’, Baby Driver had a few decent car chases (but don’t get carried away – these weren’t anything special) and a jukebox, almost musical, feel to the soundtrack.  But aside from Jamie Foxx, the film struggled to find a single decent, engaging performance.  Kevin Spacey sleep-walked, John Hamm was woefully out-of-his-depth (the man is little more than a small-screen actor) and Lily James took a role that could have been performed by any one of the attractive, capable performers that flood into Hollywood.  But most egregious was the central performance from… christ, I can’t remember his name.  And I am tempted to google it – as I have been tempted to research as to why exactly he was foisted upon us, given that I have never seen him before (is he on telly or something?) – but I can’t find the willpower, given how irritating his performance was.  Much is made out of the fact that ‘Baby’ doesn’t talk much, but the reality of the film was that he wouldn’t shut up.  His performance was needy and inhuman, so committed was he to dancing and prancing and posing in any conceivable situation.

In short; there was a much better film here if only there had been a decent cast.

 

Seen on a large screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £11 or so.

 

 

Song to Song (2017 – Terrence Malick)

 

In the UK this film has only been released for a two-week engagement on one solitary screen in London… so of course I went to see it.

By now, the critics have turned on Malick, and with the same level of predictability, a few lone voices have rushed to his defence.  Both groups are as frustrating as the other, because this was a moderately engaging film that seemed to explore two ideas with a degree of inscrutable intensity.  Firstly, that it takes an awful long time to figure out who you are, what your values are, and how you want to live in the modern world.  And that secondly, during this process of figuring yourself out, you will make some compromises that you will live to regret.

Now, neither of those ideas are particularly earth-shattering.  Nor are they permissible by those who see themselves surrounded by a generation of fecklessly indulgent millennials getting very passionate about various meaningless ideals (foremost of which are their own identities.  Second of which is Buffy feminist?).  But they are truthful (if not particularly honest) ideas, and this film, clearly suffering from Malick’s usual affectations, excavated them within a non-linear, but easily pieced together, narrative.  I liked it.

(Plus, I took the day off work to see it, and movies are always better when you are playing truant.)

 

Seen on the upstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £4.50.

 

 

The Road Warrior (1981 – George Miller)

 

There’s only so much exploitation I can handle in my life, and Ozploitation can’t quite reach the upper echelons of my interest.  I think it’s something to do with the insincerity of the accent.  But this sequel becomes something radiant; a sweaty, almost impossible car chase that is littered with leaking petroleum and mangled carburettors.  It presents the utter hopelessness of dystopia; where the last remaining semblances of dignity and compassion have been abandoned, and only the survival instinct remains.

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost about £8.50.  35mm screening – a lovely print (that called it Mad Max 2)

 

 

The Warriors (1979 – Walter Hill)

 

Wonderful to see, not least because I’d only ever seen Walter Hill’s very silly director’s cut before.  The heightened horror of New York City felt more and more perverse on the big screen… though I can’t help but feel that the ending just comes out of nowhere.  It almost feels like the budget just ran out at some point.  It doesn’t hold the same passion for me as some of Hill’s contemporaneous works, but it was still a delightful hour-and-a-half.

 

Seen immediately after the above on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8.50, though why this wasn’t a double bill, I don’t know.  35mm screening and a lovely print.

 

 

The Beguiled (2017 – Sofia Coppola)

 

I had, rather shamefully, put an awful lot of hope into this film, such was my mealy-minded dismissal of some of the sexual politics at play in Don Seigel’s version of the same film.  But those criticisms (available here) were shallow in their thinking, and susceptible to the quick condemnation of art that plagues my generation.

Because those hopes were ultimately misguided.  This was a beautiful film, and full of some rich performances, but it was a superficial affair.  Coppola displayed little inclination to examine any of the sexual (or indeed, racial) politics that are inherent to the set-up.  Moments of heighted tension in the original film, such as the visit from the confederate soldiers and the destruction of the tortoise, seemed limp and lacklustre in this version.  A beautiful waste.

 

Seen on one of the small, but still bigger than most, screens at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost £9.

 

 

Dune (1984 – David Lynch)

 

You’re struck by just how fully realised the world the Lynch created on screen.  It may be a little ridiculous in places, but you never feel that any performance or detail of set design is drawing attention to the unreality of it all.  Everyone is fully committed to the world; a world that is clearly as much of a nightmare as the one presented in Eraserhead (1977 – David Lynch).  This is not true of most science-fiction.  These kinds of stories rely on an almost biblical sense of prophecy and world-building, and Dune is no exception.  So much time is spent establishing the messianic journey of Paul Atreides, that his ultimate fulfilment of his potential seems a little rushed.  It’s a film that makes you pine for a series of increasingly desperate sequels.

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £11.  70mm screening!

 

 

Eyes Wide Shut (1999 – Stanley Kubrick)

 

I was very hungover when I saw this.

(Which is to say that it remains my favourite Kubrick, but the uncomfortable exploration of sexual desire that haunts this film was lost on me as I fell asleep on several occasions whilst watching the film.  What I will say is that the quickly issued dismissals of certain affected aspects of Kubrick’s style, such as his use of rear projection, were almost unnoticeable when viewed on a big screen from a celluloid projection.  It’s one of those many instances where the clarity of home viewing, and the easily accessible pause button, do no favours to a film.)

 

Seen on the downstairs screen at the Prince Charles.  Ticket cost £8 or so.  35mm screening – lovely print.

 

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 – Matt Reeves)

 

Planet = good

Beneath = brilliant lunacy

Escape = bit dull

Conquest = oooh, this is really quite good

Battle = yawn

Planet = affection for, given this is the first one I saw in the cinema

Rise = much, much better than it deserved to be

Dawn = awful hideous mess

And now War which was pretty decent, but no matter how good the CGI gets, and no matter how manipulative the plots of these movies are, I can’t help but get distracted by the fact that I am watching a bunch of cartoon monkeys on screen.  I suppose that at the end of the day I am going to root for a drunk, malicious Woody Harrelson over a bunch of anthropomorphic pixels.  He’s a better special effect at the end of the day.

 

Seen on a medium-sized screen at the Bluewater Showcase.  Ticket cost 6.50.

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017 – Roger Michell)

Another film dampened by a particularly wet performance – this time from some overpromoted posh boy actor (whose name is also not worth looking up) – who struggles to bring any shade to his character.  This is all that more pathetic when you consider that he essentially wants to sleep with his mum.  It is the weakness of the film that his character is placed at its centre, when the interesting person is Rachel Weisz’s eponymous cousin Rachel.  Indeed, Roger Michell’s (an above average director who always includes at least one breath-taking sequence in each of his films) direction only comes to life when she is on the screen.  Beyond that, the film is little more than the extreme competence of mumbling yokels and lavish production design that comes with any British costume drama.

 

Seen on the small, but adequate screen at the Panton St. Odeon.  Ticket cost £6.50.

 

 

Unstoppable (2010 – Tony Scott)

 

I just get really sad when I see a Tony Scott film.  Because it just breaks my heart that I’ll never have a new one to see.  He was (and is) my absolute favourite director, and…  it’s really difficult to get this down.

Like, I accept that there will be a lot of art that I will never get on top of.  I will never read all the books that I should read, or want to read.  I get that there will be James Bond films made long after I die, and therefore, there will be Bond films I don’t get to see.  But Tony Scott is finished.  His work is accomplished.  And there is part of me that desperately wants it to be unmanageable.

Because Unstoppable was so full of life and so focussed that you feel things would have started to turn around for him.  The critical establishment (which had been very sniffy about the last decade of his work) would have been presented with a series of deliberate, spectacular thrillers.  It felt like we were just about to enter a new phase of his work, that would have been as distinct as his 2000s work was from his nineties work.

The painterly exploration of image and editing had been mastered.  And what strikes you when you see these films on the screen is how controlled the shots he uses are.  He’s not cut-cut-cutting in that way that we simplify his style to; instead he only brings in the multiple camera presentation at moments of high tension, where he uses them to draw out the suspense and prolong the nervousness we feel whilst we watch the spectacle on screen.

And the film contains everything we love about him.  The texture of celluloid.  The verisimilitude of exact details within the production design and script.  The dedication to practical effects.  The central performance of such charm and charisma from Denzel Washington.  It makes you wonder how some films still manage to be good without any of those ingredients.

Unstoppable is Scott’s exploration of how competence is something essential that we don’t value enough.  We’re all looking for people with flair, but the reality is that it is the people who can get the job done, without fuss or arrogance, are the ones who ultimately prove to be exceptional.

Seeing this film made me go home and watch several other Tony Scott movies.  Hell, I watched Man on Fire (2004) twice in two days.  It’s that good.  He was that good.

And god, I miss him.

 

Seen at the NFT screen 1 at the BFI Southbank.  Ticket cost £8.  35mm screening – beautiful print.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – no Jaws sequels – vol. VIII

Sequels, prequels and remakes.  One of the greatest pleasures of movie obsession is seeing the films you love reimagined, seeing how different directors bring their own peccadillos to the proceedings.  Remaking movies is as old as cinema itself, so quite why the concept is so frowned upon nowadays, I have no idea.  Anyways.  These are my personal favourites (though it bears underlining that in nearly every case the original movie is superior.)  No Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg) sequels though because they’re all terrible.

71. Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984 – Steven Spielberg)

 

Sequel/prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Steven Spielberg)

 

Lucas and Spielberg’s desperate attempt to make a Bond film, this film is fuelled by a healthy dose of cynicism.  The movie attempts to distil the entire history of cinema into its running time – bickering back-and-forth repartee, dance routines and casual racism included.  Here the narrative is more stationary than its predecessor, so the action sequences can seem a little more obligatory, but when they are as excruciatingly involving as the mine cart sequence, its easy enough to allow yourself to be enveloped in its dazzling momentum.

Traditionally, this was seen as the weakest entry, but Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989 – Steven Spielberg) is a more prosaic affair, only enlivened by Sean Connery’s brusque charm.  The less said about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008 – Steven Spielberg) – personally I have an affection for the episode of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that features Harrison Ford – The Mystery of the Blues – which features a pretty engrossing car chase for something made on a television budget.

72. The Curse of the Cat People (1944 – Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise)

 

Sequel to Cat People (1942 – Jacques Tourneur)

 

The original invented much of the language of cinematic shock, all creeping tension and jump-scares.  This sequel threw much of its narrative out of the window, instead choosing to focus on the memetic memory of shared trauma.  We are haunted by the stories we’ve read and the traumas we see at a distance.  It is a creeping portraying of the swirling emotions of an adolescent girl, how puberty can force girls to explore the dangerous and rebel against the conformity they are being forced to adopt.  Primal experience provides a release from the patriarchy they are being groomed to work within.

 

73. Cat People (1982 – Paul Schrader)

 

Remake of Cat People (1942 – Jacques Tourneur)

Schrader’s remake is a fairly pedestrian attempt for most of its running time that simply repeats the shocks of the first film with more tits on display.  However, its ending, a depiction of sexual dominance and control, bound in a presentation of sado-masochism, is almost elegiac.  It speaks deeply to our deepest perversions, and the ease and willingness with which a man will revert to patterns of abuse if presented with the opportunity – all agency is removed from the woman in order to satisfy his sexual desires.

74. Spider-Man 2 (2004 – Sam Raimi)

 

Sequel to Spider-Man (2002 – Sam Raimi)

 

The first film, in my mind a heady mix of first dates and dropped popcorn, showed Raimi’s mix of volcanic action scenes and cheesy emotion.  The second film is pretty much in the same vein, but the pirouetting camera that swirls around some genuinely thrilling action sequences ensures that this is the best superhero film the world has ever seen.  Which is a bit like being the world’s most popular STD…

 

75. Rambo (2008 – Sylvester Stallone)

 

Fourth in the Rambo film series

Very much a companion piece to Rocky Balboa (2006), Rambo featured Stallone’s return to an iconic eighties role.  But this was a far more pessimistic affair, where good intentions proved fruitless and violence gave the only answer.  Stallone plays John Rambo as an empty shell – a logical conclusion of the events of the previous three entries in the series.  He is broken and hollowed out by violence.  He has little grip on compassion, and the film follows this path, refusing to present his adversaries with any inch of humanity.  It is Stallone’s greatest fantasy.

76. The Godfather Part II (1974 – Francis Ford Coppola)

 

Sequel/prequel to The Godfather (1972 – Francis Ford Coppola)

 

Which is often little more than the first response to ‘sequels that are better than the originals’.  I don’t think that’s a true statement, in the same way that no film adaptation is ‘better’ than the novel upon which it is based; they’re different emotional experiences.  First films have to establish tone and character and theme.  Sequels can take that from granted and build upon what has come before.  ‘Prestige’ long-form television relies on that function – unfortunately, miss-used, as it so often is by tv, the audience experiences a form of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome, whereby affection is given simply because they’ve spent a lot of time with the characters.  The Godfather Part II, does not engage with these facile assumptions, simply because it is determined to build on the first film; by both extended Michael Corleone’s descent into transgression, and by adding depth to a family business he was unable to escape.

77. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970 – Ted Post)

 

Sequel to Planet of the Apes (1968 – Franklin J. Schaffner)

 

Which takes a pulpy concept (a spaceman land on a post-apocalyptic Earth ruled by monkeys) and somehow makes it even pulpier, by throwing in psychic mutants who worship an atom bomb.  Developing a more fully designed world than its predecessor, Beneath the Planet of the Apes carefully withholds Charlton Heston’s manic screen presence to the final reel.  And what a final reel, where the Earth is annihilated by its god, only this god is an invention of man that he wished he could have forgotten, the nuclear bomb.  God isn’t that much different.

78. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972 – J. Lee Thompson)

 

Fourth in the Planet of the Apes series

After a more jovial third entry (Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971 – Don Taylor) – very much ‘The Voyage Home’ of the series, featuring drunk monkeys) the series had been boldly recast around simian protagonists rather than the humans.  By the seventies, the realisation was that the threat did not come from outside humanity, it came from within.  Here, as the continuity of the film series turned back upon itself, the series showed how our species would seek to dominate and oppress anything it perceived to be aa threat.  The only consequence, quite brutally depicted within the film, was violent insurrection by the oppressed.

79. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 – Rupert Wyatt)

 

Seventh in the Planet of the Apes series and reboot

After a lacklustre final instalment (Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973 – J. Lee Thompson)) and an underwhelming, though not worthless reboot by Tim Burton in 2001, the series was once again restarted in 2001.  Technology had reached a point where CGI apes had a life to them, though they were somewhat unfairly cast opposite John Lithgow, who has made a bit of a career of upstaging apes of various forms.  Despite being an ostensible franchise kick-starter, Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes its time, creating an engaging drama that demands your attention.  The moment where Caesar speaks for the first time is genuinely shocking.  It was followed by a messy, ridiculous sequel, where Gary Oldman had a totally superfluous moment where he cried at the sight of a cynically product-placed iPad.

80. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987 – Tony Scott)

 

Sequel to Beverly Hills Cop (1984 – Martin Brest)

Eddie Murphy is one of the great screen presences, and Beverly Hills Cop best captured these charms – his defiant, inimitable disruption of the conventional white screen that Hollywood forces upon us.  The sequel built upon that by placing him within a fluorescent, hypnotically glossy world that appears now to be the epitome of the eighties that we see in our collective cultural memory.  Tony Scott brought a balletic grace to his action scenes, and ensured that they were as thrilling as they can be – it’s almost as if he realised no one would be able to act Murphy off the screen, so the only way to provide a credible threat was by presenting action scenes as genuinely threatening.  It was a bold move, and one that began to define Scott’s career.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – b-sides vol. VII

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

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61. Sisters (1973 – Brian De Palma)

 

Because maybe there’s something better than Psycho (1960)

 

In a world of utter deification of the master, it’s refreshing to see a daring cover version of a half-remembered film.  But De Palma is not content with a retread; he layers his film with a greater level of perversion, racial tension, voyeurism and the spectacular decision to develop the changing protagonists featured in Psycho.  By ensuring the protagonist of the second half of the film observes the murder of the protagonist of the first, there is a drive to film that surpasses the occasional lethargy that is found after Hitchcock’s shower scene.  The ending reinforces the utter senselessness of existence and the curiosity of supporting character in the cinema.

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62. Sorcerer (1977 – William Friedkin)

 

Because cinema is all about tension

 

Cinema is at its greatest when it plays with tension; the careful balance of image, time, performance and action are delivered slowly and deliberately in order elicit/provoke a reaction from the audience.  This is why there is such a necessity to the horror and comedy genres, which so carefully control tension for scares and laughs respectively.  Sorcerer is neither of these, but for a film to feature one moment of utter tension is masterful; for one to feature a number indicates a piece of complete integrity.  Misbegotten upon release, it is a film of total hubris; one where the wideframe image is used to devour the performances within it and demonstrate the holistic deconstruction of the self.

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63. Breaking News (2004 – Johnnie To)

 

Because movies are a series of moments

 

With the complete saturation of media, and the increasing way in which they determine a story rather than report it, Breaking News is prescient glimpse into the way in which it could impact upon the most violent on situations.  Like many great films, it uses a constant evolving scenario format; from the single-shot gunfight opening, to claustrophobic Carpenteresque genre picture, to familial domestic comedy, to the closing, desperate car chase.  It has a playfulness and wit that is specific to the superb career of To.

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64. Unfaithful (2002 – Adrian Lyne)

 

Because there is beauty in cruelty

 

There is a quiet moment on a crowded commuter train where Richard Gere realises his marriage is over.  He takes off his glasses, pinches his nose, and it is one of the most devastating moments represented on screen.  Adrian Lyne’s wonderfully beautiful, but completely cruel masterpiece excavates the consequences of betrayal and regret.  My dad once told me about this film; he had stayed up late watching it on telly in the hours after my mum told him of her affair.  I don’t think I’ll ever know what that was like.

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65. The Grey (2011 – Joe Carnahan)

 

Because it is meaningless, meaningless; a chasing after the wind

 

So completely not the Liam Neeson punches wolves movie that this was sold as, this is a devastating, desperate deconstruction of male identity and the limits of survival.  It shows us that everything we have built – our successes, identity, physicality and social dominance – prove worthless in the face of nature’s unsympathetic eye.

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66. An American Werewolf in London (1981 – John Landis)

 

Because some films have everything; sex, death and comedy

 

There’s a brilliant moment in this film where David Naughton is left alone in a house after having sex with Jenny Agutter and he has nothing to do.  It’s not his house and he’s alone and he just has time to kill before he can fuck her again.  It’s a beautifully observed moment in a film that successfully balances comedy horror and sex – leading to a populist, delightful film.  Landis was able to blend these often contrasting elements with a deft hand; this, The Blues Brothers (1980) and Trading Places (1983) is an extraordinary run of films… and then he murdered some children.

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67. The Hunger (1983 – Tony Scott)

 

Because trash is truly beautiful

 

A beautiful film in a career of beautiful films, Tony Scott takes the ethereal, iconic, almost alien presences of Bowie and Deneuve and revels in their appallingly wonderful faces.  Scott sought to document the vapid indulgences of the wealthy metropolitan elite (the final shot where Sarandon is transposed to London underlines this) and effectively encapsulates the most vapid and irresponsible of decades.

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68. The Driver (1978 – Walter Hill)

 

Because you can say a lot without saying a lot

 

In the extraordinary runs of filmmaking, Hill is rarely mentioned but from Hard Times (1975) to Streets of Fire (1984) he created a series of focussed, tense films that explored isolated individuals.  The epitome of this run is The Driver, a terrifying clash of male egos, that is ultimately surpassed by the most hostile and beautiful of screen presences – Isabelle Adjani.  But whilst the spare, man-on-his-own-doing-a-job has been often replicated, it has never been pared with such gripping car chases.  Car chases are impossibly wonderful on screen, such is the absolute control over movement, tension and space – and impossible to present in any other medium.  This film features some fine examples of the form.

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69. Duel (1971 – Steven Spielberg)

 

Because some films aren’t even films

 

And whilst this film is not so much a car chase as an extended exercise in developing tension.  It is an oppressive experience, only underlined by the horrendous tin-can experience of sitting in the driver’s seat in the burning sun.  There is an alternate history where Spielberg continued to make the sweaty genre pictures in the Duel vein; his control of framing and camera movement would have brought a unique power to the form, but his eclectic, expansive filmography is valuable for the moments like this, Empire of the Sun (1987) and Munich (2005.

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70. Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977 – Richard Brooks)

 

Because there are masterpieces on Youtube

Diane Keaton is often the best in films that are designed to demonstrate the talents of the men in front of, and behind the camera.  She is a chaotic screen presence, even in movies where she is playing relatively straight parts.  Looking for Mr. Goodbar is an exploration of the private lives that are found behind the most generous benign public faces.  ‘Good’ people are easily simplified, and the edges and contradictions and compromises that come from dedicating your life to others are delicately presented on screen.  There is a creeping horror to the picture, as if Keaton is far out of her depth, and her enjoyment of sex is not matched by an understanding of the essential selfishness and cruelty of man, who will seek to denigrate her for enjoying her body whilst they simultaneously clutch at her skin.

The ASIDESTEPS CANON – b-sides vol. VI

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

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 51. Certified Copy (2010 – Abbas Kiarostami)

 

Because truth rarely matters.

 

I live inside this movie.  I walk its streets.  I reflect on what is true and what is not.  It’s a film where you can’t help but reflect on it and parse the slightest gesture, the muttered comment.  But it exists as more than a puzzle because of the truths it speaks to.  There is a moment where an old man tries to impart all the wisdom he has gained and shows that meaning can come from the smallest movement – placing a hand on a shoulder.  Cinema is a Frankenstein medium, all art steals, but this shows the worth that comes with stealing.

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 52. The Silence of the Lambs (1991 – Jonathan Demme)

 

Because reading films is worthwhile.

It’s a gripping film, confrontational in its direct, head-on style of shooting.  But it’s a film that has been drowned in budget price impressions and reactionary readings.  It can be saved.  Clarice is implicitly queer, she has few interactions with men, when they objectify her, she resists.  She is always a little too close to her dorm-mate.  Lecter is her campy queen, he sits back and amuses himself as she navigates the heteronormative world.  A world never more evident when men do horrible things to women.

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 53. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 – Steven Spielberg)

 

Because my eyes were opened.

 

I’m not thankful for parents for much… but showing me this film when I was seven years old is one of them.  I can’t express how much I loved this film, clambering over climbing frames in public parks using a rubber snake as whip.  You can keep your Star Wars (1977 – George Lucas), it was Indiana Jones for me.  And as an adult, I love it just enough, it’s action-every-ten-minutes setpieces, its wit.  And as Steven Soderbergh told us, you can turn the colour down and watch it in black-and-white and it’s just as good.

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 54. Streets of Fire (1984 – Walter Hill)

 

Because everything’s better with a Jim Steinman soundtrack.

 

Walter Hill thought that this film was the future, a post-apocalyptic urban comedy western.  Musical.  It’s a musical.  Whose songs were written by Jim Steinman and Stevie Nicks amongst others.  I spend a good few minutes each month thinking about what society would make these songs popular.  Taking the glorious neon light from 48 Hrs. (1982) and stretching to create an entire cityscape, Hill injects a romanticism into his brutal, pared-down scripts.  There is a moment where Michael Pare turns ‘round to see his love before he leaves her life… he can barely do it… every inch of him wants to stay… and he turns, and leaves.  It’s the most heart-breaking moment in cinema.  To think, Hill imagined that this was the first part of a trilogy…

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 55. Blow Out (1981 – Brian De Palma)

 

Because we all live with ghosts.

There’s an illicit thrill in De Palma’s pervy, trashy profoundly queer thrillers, but here we see him in a far more sombre mood as he details the limits of obsessiveness.  In what is one of John Travolta’s finest performances, we see his inability to escape the forces of politics and the overwhelming death drive.  Ultimately, he chooses to use his trauma as an anecdote, a resource in the cheap emptiness of his profession.  Hopelessness has never felt closer.

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 56. Legend (1985 – Ridley Scott)

 

Because some worlds are better than others.

 

Ridley Scott’s fourth film is a profound exploration of world-building.  Here the rich luxiourisouness of design and storytelling create a mise-en-scene where emotion is pure and on the surface.  There is an exhilaration to this film, as we radiate in the delight of a world quite unlike our own.  If only evil was as transparent as it was here.  There are three substantially different cuts of this movie, and unfortunately it is hard to recommend one over any of the others; each as its own strengths of score, pace and performance.

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57. Bigger than Life (1956 – Nicholas Ray)

 

Because we all see flashes of red.

 

Ray’s presentation of a fragile psyche demonstrates the limits of any individual.  Even the people we trust the most, who we invisibly rely on to maintain the decency of society – our teachers – are susceptible to poor mental health.  But this film is from the fifties, and poor mental health is not presented as anything prosaic.  Instead, it is an opulent mix of hysteria, colour and religion.  Society’s maintenance is paper-thin, it will take very little to destroy it.

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 58. California Split (1974 – Robert Altman)

 

Because it’s worth the risk.

 

With an output as prolific as his, it is often hard to navigate the waters of Robert Altman.  But California Split remains a cinematic love-letter to his profound love of acting profession.  He allows some deeply charismatic individuals to fully inhabit people, free of the responsibility of close-ups and holding attention.  It is up to us to seek them out, find them within the frame and indulge in their make believe.  I can sit on a train, and every other person is as real as I am.  There is a horror to that that we refuse to explore, but Altman was a director fully capable of capturing the significance of every soul in a frame.  A story is never complete within one of his films, only abandoned.

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 59. Days of Thunder (1990 – Tony Scott)

Because I feel the need for speed.

 

Tony Scott’s opulent, hazy mix of colour, sound and speed is a textural delight.  Every second of screen buzzes with excitement, as we piece together information in our minds from milli-seconds of image.  There are directors who spend lifetimes seeking to capture perfect images and Scott would throw them away in a moment.  And then cut to another deeply moving echo of reality.  Supported by a truly epic soundtrack that blends wailing guitars, synthesisers and arrhythmic percussion, and a script that is openly honest in its representations of ambition and belonging, it is a visual masterpiece, and speaks to something quite deep within myself.

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 60. The Innocents (1961 – Jack Clayton)

 

Because there’s nothing better than a ghost story.

A profoundly unsettling film, both for what is said and unsaid on screen.  For what is said, we get a deliberate unravelling of multiple fading cuts, inexplicable images and a wonderful central performance from Deborah Kerr, who gives her a governess a virginal certainty and sexual repression that allows us to explain her hauntings as hysteria.  For what is unsaid, we see the inextricable entwinement of sex and death, and the horror that unravels when this is directed at a child.  It is an abusive, ambiguous masterpiece.

The ASIDESTEPS Canon – b-sides vol. III

The Canon.  One hundred films with nothing from the top 250 Sight & Sound poll.  These are the b-sides; un-canonised, free from decades of perception and discussion, but great films in their own right.  No apologies, no pretensions.

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  1. The Last Movie (1971 – Dennis Hopper)

 

Because movies are an addiction.

It was a film I had to hunt down, having only seen moments of the movie within a documentary.  It became a high I was desperate to seek.  Still hidden, it remains one of cinema’s greatest buried treasure, a painfully honest excavation of ego (and the demise of it) at the height of a decade of American auteurism.  Hopper was determined to collapse any expression of his perceived ‘genius’, and few films capture such unrelenting self-destruction.

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  1. The Bling Ring (2013 – Sofia Coppola)

 

Because this is the future.

 

Unlike most films that seek to divide young people, this film demonstrates the bliss of forming deep friendships at that age (and the absolute freedom that comes once one of you has a car.)  Dismissed, by men, as superficial and indulgent, The Bling Ring follows children overwhelmed by the beauty of the world they live in and explores their absolute intention to live a life that matters.  Did we really all become that much better when we grew up?  Shouldn’t we return to those feelings of such intensity we knew at a young age?  Wouldn’t that put an end to all the apathy we experience in the face of such evident cruelty in the world?

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  1. Light Sleeper (1992 – Paul Schrader)

 

Because we’re searching for moments of peace.

 

Pauls Schrader’s spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver (1976) continues a running theme of individuals dislocated from society around them, and the unavoidable descent into violence that occurs once you try to take control of your life.  There’s an earnestness to Schrader’s work which is so charming… like he has no ability to express love so can only steal sex scenes from Godard and grace notes from Bresson.  But it is a film of utterly sweet queerness, as if sex can never enter the frame.  Even the final expression of love comes with the understanding that there will be no physical contact for years.

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  1. Thief (1981 – Michael Mann)

 

Because the understanding the individual is key.

Michael Mann is a man who is excavating his themes to their fullest extent.  He will uncover that skeleton.  Key to his work is understanding how he explores the ability of the individual to maintain control over his life – to maintain a work/life balance with his family in Manhunter (1986), to maintain control over a profession in the face of overwhelming love in Miami Vice (2006) – and here, how an individual maintains his individuality and integrity when a corporation disrupts his existence.  With a richness of colour, a depth of shadow and a soundtrack that elevates the film to something eternal, Thief is an artist laying out a stall that we will return to again and again.

 

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  1. Déjà Vu (2006 – Tony Scott)

 

Because you would do anything for love.

There’s a moment when Denzel Washington looks at an image of a woman and decides he will go back in time to save her life.  And in that moment his face flashes with fear of the consequences, terror at the force of his conviction and absolute determination to do the right thing.  Tony Scott directs with his kaleidoscopic approach to montage, allowing fragments of images, colour and performance to fill the screen, forcing us as a viewer to become more engaged, to invest more and to stretch our minds by constantly stitching together images.  It’s a stimulating visual pleasure.

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  1. Event Horizon (1997 – Paul W. S. Anderson)

 

Because some images haunt your mind

Cinema is superior to television in many ways (performance, direction, inventiveness) but no more so than in how it has appropriated science fiction concepts and reduced it to the background.  Ideas litter the frame, rather than dominate the conversation.  Event Horizon explores the horror of space travel, the limited movement, lack of freedom, lack of company in an environment that will kill you in an instant.  This film features a truly disturbing vision of hell that plagues my mind from time to time.

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  1. Play Misty for Me (1971 – Clint Eastwood)

Because sometimes you can’t escape.

 

Clint Eastwood begins a career of exploring how he does not understand women.  But he is never content to simplify women (or indeed, ever cast conventionally Hollywood type actresses) allowing for portrayals of a complex, yet ultimately terrifying femininity.  Even at this relatively early stage of his career he realised that he was greater than a star – he was already an icon – and his future years would depend on threats causing his iconic body crumble and the ultimate dominance of his face and voice when films required it.  The first half of the film is imbibed with a sense of dread, that manifests itself in genuinely unhinged acts of mania.  Eastwood’s first film remains his most invigorating, in the same way that Duel (1971) is for Spielberg.

 

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  1. Groundhog Day (1993 – Harold Ramis)

 

Because sometimes you can’t escape.

 

One of the most beautifully enjoyable films ever made, Groundhog Day is about the serenity found in accepting that you cannot affect the world or the people around you, you can only affect yourself.  A film of blissful humour and a typically laconic central performance from Bill Murray that plays off his peculiar blend of sweet frostiness, it is only in the moments after the film that you realise that Phil Connors relived the same day for a millennia or two.

 

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  1. Jaws (1975 – Steven Spielberg)

 

Because there is no point in life which wouldn’t be made better by watching Jaws.

 

For a film that supposedly invented the blockbuster, Jaws takes its time to get to the shark.  Spielberg demonstrates the purity of his eye, his subtle ability to place figures in a frame and move the camera only at moments of great effect.  Demonstrating how physical strength and intellectual stamina are both required to survive, he demonstrates how man’s inventiveness and ability to create tools allows us to dominate, and destroy, nature.

 

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  1. Shock Corridor (1963 – Samuel Fuller)

 

Because independence is worthwhile.

With a purity of expression, Samuel Fuller explores humanities dirtiest little secret… our minds.  Hidden from everyone else, our perversions, delusions, and fantasies fester away.  Occasionally they break through, and then we have a mental health issue, but this is too much.  And mental health must be as hidden as the thoughts themselves.  So the struggling individual is placed in an institution, where expressions of control and sanity are ignored as moments of confusion.  And all the dirty little thoughts bubble up in racism, cruelty and violence.